Last weeks shooting in Columbia, MD struck a deeper chord in me than other recent public carnage. We will never know why Darius Marcus Aguilar chose to open fire at the Mall in Columbia over any of the other enclosed shopping mall in our country, but in defiling Columbia he trampled on a place that defined our nations aspirations nearly fifty years ago.
I was twelve in 1967 when real estate developer James Rouse unveiled his new planned community of Columbia, MD. Mr. Rouse developed shopping centers in the 1950’s and conceived the planned community of Columbia before becoming best known as the visionary who created Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace as well as festival markets in other major cities in the 1970’s. Mr. Rouse’s goal for Columbia – 100,000 diverse people living, working, and playing in a coherent community – incorporated 1960s era notions of equality in a suburban ideal.
Columbia, MD covers over 22 square miles. The original plan includes ten walkable villages, a city center, and peripheral industrial. As a young architect-to-be, such grand gestures stirred my soul. However, Columbia’s innovative way of living extended beyond physical planning. Columbia espoused racial balance, religious diversity and economic integration. Social scientists rubbed shoulders with designers and financiers, promoting such novel concepts at the Columbia Medical Plan, an early HMO.
Mr. Rouse and his partners proved expert at creating profitable yet socially sensitive ventures. Dozens of articles were written about Columbia; a city that spoke to America’s noblest aspirations while bolstering the inherent consumerism of suburban living.
The United States has a long history of planned communities. Colonial visionaries created Philadelphia, Charlestown and Savannah. Nineteenth century surveyors’ gridded Manhattan and Boston’s Back Bay. In the twentieth century, planned communities became less dense. Garden cities of the 20s and 30s with housing, recreation, industry and commerce, like Radburn NJ and Greenbelt MD, gave over to more suburban models like Columbia and Reston VA. In almost every case, these communities evolved in a similar way. The housing was desirable, property values rose, the population skewed upper-middle class, and the proposed industry never materialized
Columbia adheres to this trend. Today, it has almost 100,000 residents. The median income is over $43,000 per person and the median house costs more than $350,000. More than 60% of Columbia’s residents over 25 have college degrees, and more than 90% of the workforce is white-collar professional. Columbia does not represent America’s economic reality. However, the city is a good reflection of our racial diversity. Columbia is 52% white, 25% black, with a remaining Hispanic, Asian, and mixed-race population that closely the mirrors the nation as a whole.
There is no industry to speak of, the GE appliance plant closed in 1990. Instead, Columbia has office parks and many people commute to Baltimore or Washington, DC. Columbia has benefited from forty years of growth in government jobs. Ultimately, Columbia’s just another upscale suburb. Still, the city offers a quality of life that many people value; Money Magazine frequently names Columbia as a top ten place to live.
Darius Marcus Aguilar killed two people, then himself, and traumatized hundreds more. He also opened fire on the aspirations that defined my youth. Although Columbia ultimately fell short of expectations, it espoused our dual objectives of equality and the 1/3-acre house lot. We believed that the path to racial and economic balance required a mix of private initiative and public support, and we were blessed with so much it seemed we could find a way to share it among all.
That time is past. Those aspirations were extinguished by fear and greed before Darius ever pulled his trigger. His tragic actions simply call to attention the chasm between where we are and what might have been.